One of the realities that most exemplifies liminality is itinerancy. History is replete with wanderers who have sojourned without what counts for permanent accommodations. They either chose nomadic life voluntarily or it was thrust upon them without their permission.
In our own time, a whole new class of Americans has arisen which defines this category – those who eschew permanent lodging and opt instead for the vehicle-lodging hybrid that doubles as both. Jessica Bruder spent three years traveling and living with them as a kind of participant-observer The fruit of this experience is digested and represented in her remarkable book Nomadland. It deserves, in my mind, a permanent place on the “liminality and literature” book shelf.
When you travel with Jessica, it is to a place you may fear most, the insecure condition of having no house or apartment to hang your hat. If you ever do fall into that place it may be because of the high cost of deposits, down-payments, mortgages, rent, utilities, and insurance. The loss of a job may have tipped you off the razor’s edge. Or a divorce. Or one medical calamity without health insurance. Or poverty. Or just being part of the America that has no economic mobility whatsoever.
And if you are one of those who decide to go off the grid and acquire a vehicle that doubles as your home, you’ll equip it for living in all kinds of weather. A community of fellow travelers will provide collective survival knowledge and even a philosophy for souls sharing your same way of life. In fact, for you to make it, you will become expert at finding where to park and sleep without being ejected before morning. And seasonal work opportunities for modern-day migrants will draw you to places you never could have imagined – with a pad to park your rig and make some ready cash to get you through. Welcome to Nomadland.
If there is one thing we know from liminal studies it is that the itinerant is at once charmed and feared.
They are charmed because they live in the margin, apart from from the all-consuming structure that slowly destroys the soul. Jesus was a wanderer, he and his disciples. And they were given special regard as holding rare healing power and teaching wisdom. We wish we could know what those at the edge know. We wish we were free.
But itinerants are feared as well. The Gypsies, the circus workers, the migrants and their caravans, the stranger who wanders through town. They are not part of us and not safe. They represent some undefinable threat. Our evolutionary survival instinct rises to the surface. That is their curse, to never belong and always remain suspect.
Whether charmed or feared, the nomads in our midst remain lodged in the nooks, edges, crannies, borders and boundaries of life. From that perch, perspectives arise that critique what we have called the good life. It could be that in the dark liminal recesses of our own minds and hearts that is what we fear most; they might bear some ember of truth to our campsite and that ember could catch fire and burn our figurative houses down. Not only that we might meet the same fate because of an unexpected calamity. But because the house of cards of modern life is more precarious than any of us may have imagined. And intimations of that possibility are enough to make us flinch at the sight of anyone living as a nomad in their van, car, RV or old school bus.